At First Sight – Part 4

As I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year I have no time to write original material for my blog. Instead, I’m reblogging a serial that I first published in 2017. I hope you enjoy it!

What do you do when you first meet your true love the day before she flies back to Australia? For Jon, the answer was simple; you follow her as soon as possible. One small problem – PhD students like Jon have very little money. For Vikki, his beloved, the answer was more difficult; handsome, clever, surf-hero Dan has carried a torch for her for years…

Jon rang his mum and chatted; about his work, her work, and the latest news from his dad’s parish; before raising the subject that was uppermost in his thoughts.

“Mum, I need to borrow some money. It’s rather a lot, I’m afraid.”

Carolyn Hall thought for a moment. It wasn’t like Jon to ask for money. He’d managed on his own since his first term at university.

“How much do you need, love?”

“About two thousand pounds, I’m afraid.”

“You’re not in any trouble, are you?”

“No, and I should be able to pay you back quite soon; within about six months, I think.”

“I’ll have to talk to Dad first.” She hesitated for a moment, and then added, “I know it’s none of my business, but Dad will want to know why you need it.”

She waited for the explosion. Jon had always made it very clear that he needed to be independent; that he was going to live his life without interference from his parents. She sighed. It must be difficult for him, being James’s son.

“It’s a bit tricky. And it sounds as though I’m going bonkers. All I can say is that it’s very real to me. I’ve met this girl.”

“Oh, Jon, I am pleased for you!”

“The trouble is, she lives in Australia. I met her just before she went home, and now she’s there and I’m here.”

“What’s her name? What’s she like?”

“Vikki; that’s with two kays and an i. She’s beautiful, Mum, just beautiful. And clever; she’s just finished a master’s degree in education at Cambridge. I knew the instant I saw her that she was the right girl…” His voice trailed away as he relived the moment.

“Oh, Jon, you’ve got it bad, haven’t you?”

Jon tensed, and then relaxed. He laughed.

“Yes, I suppose I have! But that doesn’t make the feeling less real, you know?”

“I know, Jon, I know. That was how I felt about Dad when we first met. It’s worked for us so far! I still feel the same about him. But it wasn’t the way he fell in love with me, if you follow me?”

“Thank you, Mum. For telling me about you and Dad, I mean. Do you think it would be better for me to ring him and ask about a loan?”

“I think Dad would appreciate that, yes. Man to man, you know.”

“Okay, I’ll do that. Thanks for the advice.”

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Vikki scooped up the letter from the mat, and raced to her room. The sun struck obliquely through the window, making the wall at her bedhead dazzlingly white. The petals of the posy on her dressing table glowed translucent in the reflected light.

Vikki looked at Jon’s handwriting, with its firm downstrokes, its well-formed letters, its fluidity. Her heart sang. His voice was vivid in her memory, and she imagined him sitting beside her on the bed reading the letter to her.

“Dear Vikki,

Thank you so much for writing. You made me really happy when I read that you had ‘danced with delight’ because I planned to visit!

You’re right; we don’t know each other very well. You say that matters to you, and that you guess it matters to me. Be reassured; it does. I want to know everything about you, the big things and the little things, the essential and the trivial. It will be such a joy learning about all these from you!

Or do you mean that you have doubts about whether what we felt that magical night will prove ephemeral? Is that why you say, “We mustn’t be carried away”?

Let me tell you how I feel. I love you. You have changed me. In the past, I’ve always thought carefully before doing anything, but you make me feel so certain that we belong together that I don’t need to think about it, I just know it.

I want you to know this, Vikki. The thing I want more than anything in the world is that you should be happy. If, in the future, my love for you becomes an obstacle to your happiness, I shall let you go. It would break my heart – I can hardly bear even thinking about it – but I would do it.

By the way, there is something more practical that I need to tell you. I had another run-in with Guy. He was after your address in Australia. I didn’t tell him, of course, but yesterday somebody broke into my flat. They didn’t take anything – and there was quite an expensive laptop on the desk in full view – so I suppose Guy might have been the burglar. Take care, my dearest.

I hope so much that I shall soon see you in Australia; I should be able to suggest some dates next time I write in a few days. How I wish I was with you now!

With all my love

Jon”

Vikki held the letter against her lips, smiling.

At first sight - letter and phone 170617

“Jonathan! This is an unexpected pleasure. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Dad. How are you? And the parish, of course?”

“We’re doing nicely, thank you. The occasional hiccup. If you want the latest news, the organist has just quit. I don’t suppose you want to hear about that, though?”

They chatted casually for a few minutes, until Jon said, “Actually, Dad, I had an ulterior motive in ringing you.”

“I thought you might have.”

Jon winced. That accomplished, cultured, know-it-all, self-satisfied tone of voice had haunted his childhood.

“Would you lend me two thousand pounds, please.”

There was a short silence. James Hall waited for the explanation to be offered. Jon struggled with his pride.

“I’m in love with a woman who lives in Australia. I need to go and see her.”

There was a longer silence.

“That’s a fair sum, Jon.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think I needed it.”

“There may be a difference between what you think you need and what you actually need.”

Jon struggled to relax, to remain calm, to remain courteous. This constant assumption that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he would screw up if left to himself…

“Dad, if you hang on a minute, I’ll explain. I met Vikki the day before she was due to fly home. It was – astonishing – stunning. I just knew immediately that she’s the one. She seems to feel the same way. I want to go to Australia to confirm what we feel.

You may think it’s a gamble. Maybe you’re right. But it’s my gamble. Your money will be safe, whatever the outcome.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, Jonathan, it’s not the safety of my money that concerns me. It’s your future, your studies, putting all that at risk just because you’ve met an attractive girl who’s bowled you over. What about your studies, anyway?”

“My professor is happy. In fact, he’s asked me to go into the University of Melbourne to establish personal links with the staff there. It’s a great chance to network.”

“I just don’t want to see you hurt, Jon.”

“Not going to Australia and losing her would hurt me more than anything I can imagine.”

“Mm. Yes, I can see that might be so.”

Jon waited.

“All right. You may have the money. I’ll transfer it to your account this afternoon. Would you be happy to repay it in twelve months?”

“I’m taking on some more tutoring. Can I pay it back monthly over six months starting in October, please?”

“Yes, that’ll be okay. Take care of yourself, Jon. I’m proud of you, son. You’re growing up into a fine man.”

Jon almost dropped the phone. He stammered goodbye.

James Hall replaced his receiver. Two thousand pounds was almost his entire savings. He would just have to hope that there was no emergency in the next ten months.

After the call, Jon put his phone on the desk and stared out of the window.

Right. Time to check availability of those cheap flights he’d found!

 

If you’ve missed the earlier chapters,  you can read them here

At first sight

At first sight – part 2

Short Story – At first sight – part III

 

 

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At first sight

My last couple of posts have been rather serious. Time for a change! Isn’t it strange how life-changing experiences can happen when we least expect them? Jonathan, a PhD student at Imperial College, was hardly a party animal, Academic supervisors aren’t noted for hosting orgies. And yet, by the end of the evening, Jonathan’s world has been turned upside-down.

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It was a good party. There was appetising food and a choice of wine, cask beer, or any number of soft drinks. The music was cheerful and not too loud; guests could converse without needing to shout at each other. As he queued at the table for a portion of fresh salmon salad, Jonathan idly wondered how his host had persuaded a live band to play at less than full volume. He would stay for an hour, long enough not to appear impolite, and then go back to his flat. His thoughts strayed back to the work he was doing for a PhD.

The band started to play a cover of the Rolling Stones song ‘Satisfaction’. Jonathan glanced down the room, curious to know the age of the musicians. The girl that he saw close to him filled him with sudden wonder and delight. Her eyes were amber. Her long hair was the colour of clover honey. She seemed, astonishingly, to be on her own. Jonathan was a shy man, but he immediately went over and introduced himself.

“Can I fetch you some food?” he offered.

She smiled. “I’ll join you in the queue, I think.” Her accent was Australian. “My name’s Vikki, by the way.”

“Vicky. Short for Victoria, or christened Vicky?”

“Christened? My folks wouldn’t have anything to do with that! But Vikki’s the name on my birth certificate.”

Jonathan turned in response to a tap on his shoulder. The man was tall. He was handsome in a flashy way. He gestured that Jonathan should leave.

“Don’t be so tedious, Guy.”

Vikki looked upset by the interruption.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to intrude if you’re with Guy.”

“I’m not.”

Guy and Vikki exchanged looks.

“Go away, Guy,” she said. “You know you shouldn’t be anywhere near me.”

Guy didn’t move.

Jonathan hated confrontation; nevertheless, “Vicky doesn’t want you here,” he said; and hoped he looked sufficiently intimidating. Guy’s punch to his head took him completely by surprise, and knocked him flat. As he elbowed himself off the floor, he saw Guy striding to the exit dragging Vikki with him.

Jonathan pushed away the concerned onlookers. He wiped his hand over his face, and felt dismayed by the blood and mucus. Then he ran at Guy, and punched him as hard as he could at the place where he imagined the kidneys would be.

Friends grabbed him, pinned him. Others held onto Guy, who was retching, struggling to breathe.

Jonathan’s host was there.

“Put him outside,” he said, gesturing at Guy.

“If you want to continue,” he said to Jonathan, “you can go outside too. What on earth were you thinking about, Jon?”

“He was thinking of me,” interrupted Vikki. “Thank you, Jon. Guy’s a brute. There’s a restraining order against him, but he won’t leave me alone.”

Vikki led Jonathan into the kitchen, sponged the blood off his face.

“You’ll have a nasty bruise there.”

Jonathan grinned. “Never mind that. Can I see you tomorrow?”

“Oh, Jon! I wish you hadn’t asked that! I’m going home to Oz.”

They looked at each other.

“Holiday, or permanent?”

“Permanent.”

They looked away.

Then Jon turned back to Vikki, and took both her hands in his. Her skin was so soft and smooth.

“You feel it too, don’t you?” he said. He watched her face attentively, seeing pain, hunger, longing.

At last she sighed, nodded, and laid her face against his shoulder.

Next day, Jonathan watched her go through the departure gate, stayed and watched her plane take off. He clutched the piece of paper on which she’d written her name and address.

Who would have thought that love at first sight could hurt so much?

Some you win

One of the blessings of maturity is that you realise that winning is not the be-all and end-all of life. Sometimes trying too hard to win can cost you a high price. This short story tells how Damien and Gill, Sue and Tim, compete in the College tennis tournament. The prize for winning is a trophy. But what might you lose if you pursue it ruthlessly?

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“Did you manage those problems for our physics tutorial next Monday?”

Sue and Gill had brought folding chairs into the quad so they could enjoy the sunshine of a glorious early June morning while they studied. Gill nodded.

“Yes, I think so.”

“I suppose you couldn’t go through them with me? I’m struggling to do even one of them.”

Gill looked up from her book. “Do you mind if I just finish this section?”

“No, of course not. I’ll go and fetch the work I’ve done so far.” Sue jumped to her feet and bounded up three flights of stairs to her room, gathered an untidy armful of papers from her desk, and scuttled back down.

Gill looked through the assortment of pages until she found the first problem.

“Look!” she said. “You’ve almost finished this. You’re using the right equations, you’ve just made a mistake in the arithmetic.”

Sue scanned the paper.

“Oh, yes!” She took the paper from Gill and corrected the error. It didn’t take her many minutes to finish the problem. Meanwhile, Gill glanced through the others. ‘Sue seems to have completely misunderstood the concept’ she thought. Carefully she talked her friend through the work.

“Oh, wow! Thank you so much, Gill!” Sue hugged Gill warmly.

“Is this a private hugfest, or can anyone join in?” Gill jumped. Sue laughed.

“Hi, Tim!”

He leaned forward, and she kissed him tenderly. They’d been dating for a couple of months, and she could still hardly believe her luck. She gazed at him, eyes shining. Smiling he took both her hands in his, moving even closer. “Tim! Look out! You’ll have the chair over!”

“I’d better be off,” said Gill. “I must take this book back to the library.”

“Get off, Tim!” Sue pushed him away. “Gill, I’m really grateful for your help. Would you like to join a few of us punting on Saturday? We’re going up to Grantchester.”

“For a liquid lunch,” added Tim. “You’d be very welcome. Bring a friend if you like; there’s room for another one in the punt.”

“Yes, I’d love to join you.”

On her way to the library, Gill paused at the College notice board. The advertisement for the College tennis tournament was still there, and she looked to see whether Sue had signed it yet. She’d been talking about it for ages.

“How about teaming up for the tennis this afternoon?” Gill jumped. She hadn’t heard Damien approach.

“I’m not very good,” she said.

“No problem. I’m no good either. But I expect it will be fun!”

Gill smiled shyly at him. “As long as you’re sure you don’t mind if I’m useless.” Her blue eyes, with their long dark lashes, peered up at him from beneath a heavy fringe of blonde hair.

Damien fished a biro out of his pocket. “Damien and Gill”. His handwriting was neat, even on the vertical surface of the notice board. He grinned, teeth creamy against his short, curly beard. “Got a lecture now. See you at the tennis courts at a quarter to two!” Gill looked again at their two names, paired on the notice board. She stared at them for several long seconds.

Sue came panting up.

“Phew! Just as well the notice is still there. Tim would have killed me if we weren’t in the tourney. I said I’d sign us up last week!”

Hastily, she scrawled “Sue and Tim” onto the notice.

“Damien’s partnering you? Wow! Lucky you! What a hunk!”

“I just hope I don’t let him down.”

“Don’t worry. It won’t matter how badly you play. It’s not the tennis court where he hopes you’ll be brilliant!” Thus, the wisdom of a twenty-one year old to a nineteen year old. Gill blushed crimson.

As luck would have it, Damien and Gill were drawn against Sue and Tim in the first round. They were on Court 3, a pretty court a little distance from the pavilion. The grass was smooth, short, and scarcely worn. The lines were fresh and bright white. There were birch trees to shelter it from the prevailing wind.

Damien tossed the ball high and opened the match with a clean ace. Fifteen-love. Tim shook his head. He should at least have laid a racket on the service. Sue moved from the net to receive Damien’s next delivery.

“Go back a pace,” suggested Tim. “The ball came high off the ground.”

Sue retreated well behind the baseline. The service was fast. She poked at it, connected, and the ball plopped invitingly over the net, ideally placed for Gill to hit a winner. Gill swung hard, and despatched the ball heavily into the net. Fifteen all.

Tim was ready for the speed of Damien’s next service, but not for its direction. The ball swung fiercely and landed just the right side of the centre line. Tim’s attempt at a backhand return missed completely. Thirty-fifteen.

Sue stood well back again. Damien slightly mishit his serve, and Sue returned it straight down the line. Damien was left flat-footed. Thirty all.

Tim grinned. “Nice shot.”

A double-fault. Thirty-forty.

Damien’s next service was gentler, as he sought to recover his accuracy. Sue stepped in and hit the ball hard towards Gill, who squealed and dodged. Damien ran across court behind her and just retrieved the ball. Hit at full stretch, his shot rocketed down the line leaving Sue stranded. Deuce.

Damien’s next service was fast and accurate, but Tim returned it.

“Yours!” yelled Damien to Gill, inviting her to take the volley.

Gill turned. “What?” she asked. The ball bounced between them, neither of them touching it. Advantage Tim and Sue.

Trying to conceal his exasperation, Damien walked across to Gill.

“I’m sorry I distracted you,” he said. “When there’s a ball that either of us could hit, I’ll shout “Yours” if I want you to play the shot. And will you do the same for me, please?”

“Yes. Silly of me. Sorry.” She felt as though her blush extended right up to her hairline.

Damien double-faulted, and the game was lost.

After a while, Damien stopped trying to coach Gill. He tried to cover her, so that when she missed a shot he was able to keep the ball in play. For a while the strategy succeeded. They were ahead three games to two after Damien’s second service game.

Tim was next to serve. Damien won the first point with a blistering return. Tim served to Gill. The sun was in his eyes, and the ball went into the net. His second service was slightly mishit, and bounced well for Gill. She gritted her teeth, opened her shoulders, and swung with venom and frustration. The ball flew between Tim and Sue, bouncing just inside the baseline.

Tim put down his racket and applauded. “Good shot!” he called. Sue ran up to the net, beckoning to Gill to come close.

“Don’t let Damien get you down,” she whispered. “Play for yourself, not for him.”

Gill tried to take the advice, and she did, indeed, play a few more good shots. But all the time she felt that Damien was watching her, covering for her, trying to win the match for both of them by his own efforts. Her shoulders slumped, and the corners of her mouth turned down. She trudged from place to place on the court, wondering what she was doing there, and longing for the ordeal to be over.

Slowly the first set slipped away from Damien and Gill.

Sue and Tim were starting to show their quality. Tim played hard. ‘The quicker we win, the less embarrassing it will be for Gill,’ he thought.

Sue became very cross at her friend’s humiliation. When one of her shots hit Damien in the face, she was hard pressed not to show her delight. Sue and Tim won the second set six-one, and with it the match.

As soon as they’d all shaken hands, Sue grabbed Gill, and walked back to the pavilion with her. Damien watched them go. He’d begun to half-realise that Gill was upset. He watched as Sue passed Gill a tissue to wipe her eyes.

‘Shit!’ he thought. ‘You stupid so-and-so. You’ve totally blown it!’

He looked at Tim, who shrugged. “Not clever, Damien. Not clever at all.”

Damien looked towards the pavilion. Would it be worth trying to apologise? No. That would just make matters worse. He chucked his racket into his bag and slunk away to sit and sulk in his room.

Tim sauntered back to the pavilion. Perhaps tomorrow he would invite Damien to the punting party, give him a chance to recover his position with Gill. He’d better check that with Sue first, though. He couldn’t be completely sure, but he thought she’d deliberately tried to hurt Damien in that second set…

Happily ever after

For many students, university life is a time to acquire the qualifications for your career while drinking large quantities of alcohol. Others are more single-minded, pursuing a special interest or a marriage partner. A few feel called to the academic life. What happens when the worlds of love and scholarship collide? And what are their relative values?

It’s strange how you can overlook people, isn’t it?

I’d sat in lectures with Justin for six months. He was tall, with a neat, crinkly beard and moustache, and he usually wore a sweater and jeans. Other than that I could have told you nothing about him, not even his name, except that his presence in the same lectures as me meant that he was in his first year reading Natural Science. And knowing nothing about him didn’t bother me at all.

I had, after all, come to Cambridge to study, and for the first term and a half I did little else. In Queens’ College, though, you are obliged to dine in Hall occasionally, and there I met Alison. She was tiny, with dark curly hair and a smile that could light up a room. Whenever I became too intense about my work, she would drag me out to the college bar, or a theatre. She even persuaded me to try a disco one evening; not a place you would usually find me!

It was March, and for several weeks now Alison had been talking about white-water kayaking. We were sharing coffee together in my room and I was only half listening. She’d knocked on the door when I was in the middle of trying to complete work for my physics tutorial, and my mind was still on the problem we’d been set.

“So you’ll come then, Nicola?” she asked.

“Yes, okay,” I said, still not listening. Which is why I was surprised when she came to see me on Friday to make sure I hadn’t forgotten that we were going white-water kayaking the following day. Ah!

It sounded like a sport that was everything I hated. Above all, it was cold and it was wet. But Alison was my best friend, and I didn’t want to let her down.

She and I sat near the front of the coach for the two hour journey to Derbyshire.  When we arrived it was grey, and raining with an air of persistence. I was standing near the coach door wondering whether to ask the driver to let me stay in his nice, warm vehicle for the day, and who should climb down the steps but Justin?

He smiled happily at me. “Hello, Nicola! I didn’t know this was your scene?”

What a lovely resonant voice! It gave me goosebumps.

“How do you know my name?” I demanded.

“I thought you looked nice, so I asked around until I found someone who knew you. My name’s Justin. Have you kayaked before?”

“No, this is my first time.”

“Mine too. Should be fun!”

Already we were walking towards the reception.

The instructors were very safety conscious. We had an hour-long lecture, followed by two hours of exercises on dry land before we were allowed near the water. Somehow, Justin and I always seemed to be near each other. His cheerful grin more than compensated for the cold, wet river.

I was tired out after the day, and Justin shepherded me into a window seat on the coach. Oh, how pleasant it was to be back in the warm! As soon as the coach started moving I drifted off to sleep. I didn’t wake up until we were back in Cambridge, when I came to with a start to find my head snuggled onto Justin’s shoulder. He didn’t seem to mind, and, as we climbed off the coach, he said, “Would you like to come to a concert on Wednesday? I just happen to have two tickets.”

To be honest, he could have invited me to the circus (which I loathe), or church (which always makes me cross about peoples’ gullibility) – even to go kayaking again – and I would have said yes. Anything to enjoy that lovely smile beaming at me. I could hardly wait for Wednesday.

There was still work to be done, though, and I poured my energy into that. Being happy seemed to release something inside me. I found I could solve problems that had previously been beyond me. Every time I completed a piece of work I allowed myself five minutes of delight imagining Justin, his merry face, his laugh, and that lovely warm strength that I’d felt cuddled up to him on the coach.

It was a concert of classical music, a string quartet. I don’t know much about music but I think the performance must have been very good. In one piece, the quartet were joined by another cellist, and the piece that they played had me in tears. It was so sad, and yet so beautiful. I never knew such music existed. It felt like heaven imagined by the bereaved for their loved one. I soaked my hankie and Justin lent me his.

We went out for a meal afterwards, and then back to his room. We talked and we talked. And then we kissed. Our first kiss. You’ve kissed people, I’m sure. You know what it’s like. But that first kiss. That was so special. I was trembling by the end, and I think Justin was too.

“It’s two o’ clock. Heavens! I have a lecture in seven hours! Justin, I must go! Thank you for a lovely, lovely evening.”

“Can I see you again? Please?”

For the first time he looked apprehensive, so apprehensive that I stopped and thought properly about my answer. Eventually I said, “I’ve enjoyed tonight more than anything in my life. And I like you more than anybody else I know. I’d hate not to see you again. So why don’t we go out the evening after tomorrow? I’ll think of something, and book it and let you know. You’d better give me your mobile number.” We kissed again. It felt so right…I cycled back to college in a haze of endorphins.

It wasn’t long before our friends referred to us as ‘an item’.

We didn’t see each other over the Easter vac; my parents always went abroad at Easter, and this year was no exception. I took my Kindle loaded with textbooks and my laptop and spent most of the time studying. I felt I had the capability to achieve a first class result, and I didn’t intend to fail through lack of effort. By the end of the vacation I was on course provided I kept working hard. It was a satisfying feeling.

As soon as I’d dropped my suitcase in my room in college, I rushed over to Justin. As he held me close, it felt as though I could relax for the first time since we’d parted. I pressed my face hard against his chest, and luxuriated in his scent. He smelled – reassuring, somehow.

“Did you miss me?” he asked.

“Of course I missed you! Did you miss me?”

“Horribly,” he said. “Every day. Even though you were in France, and I couldn’t touch you, I longed to see you and to hear your voice, but you seemed to be very busy. I would have loved to talk more on Skype.”

“We did talk on Skype,” I said, rather indignantly.

“Twice. In three weeks. I was a starving man, hungering for his beloved’s voice! But, seriously, Nicola, couldn’t you have managed to talk a bit more? I missed you so much.”

“I’m sorry, Justin. I was working hard, you know? Ten hours a day, every day. And Mum and Dad wanted to drag me out to museums and things, too.”

“I understand. I’m ever so proud of how bright you are. I just missed being close.”

“Well, I’m close now.” I lifted my face to his, and we kissed, softly at first, then fiercely. I was caught up by his passionate desire, and wanted nothing more from life than perfect unity with him.

It was a very busy term. I extended my reading on the syllabus to include related topics, so that I knew the context of the subject matter in the curriculum. I made sure that if a topic rested on calculation, I could do the calculation even where the curriculum treated it only qualitatively. At first, Justin and I tried to study together. He never interrupted me, but he would work for an hour and then tiptoe out of the room, spend half an hour in the bar and then tiptoe back. I found it desperately distracting, and after about a week we agreed to study separately.

And then, at last, the exams were over and we could relax. Justin and I went to Queens’ May Ball! We danced. We ate and drank. We listened to a jazz concert. We danced some more. The skies lightened and we breakfasted in the dawn, before taking a punt onto the Backs. The sun shone nearly horizontally, so we were in shade until we reached King’s College. Justin steered us to the west of the river, and used the pole to secure the punt to the bank. And there, in the glory of that summer morning, Justin asked me to marry him.

I looked across at King’s College. Its stonework, normally honey-coloured, was black against a golden sky. I looked down river at Clare College bridge, starkly limned by the sun, with the shadowy river beyond.

The gentle breeze fanned my flaming cheeks without seeming to cool them. I wanted nothing more than to be Justin’s wife; my body yearned for the reassurance of being totally his. But what did he want from marriage? And what would I be able to give?

I tried to say something of this. But, in the face of his desire and commitment, his single-minded love, I was clumsy. I wanted to shout “I love you! Yes! Yes! YES!”, fling myself at him, and live happily ever after.

“But this is the real world, not a fairy tale,” I found myself saying, while thinking ‘How can I say that? What am I doing?’

He looked so hurt. And nothing could have hurt me more than that.

“Have I any grounds for hope?” he asked, “or should I just chuck the ring in the river?”

“Oh, Justin I do love you. It’s just that, well, we haven’t even talked about marriage, or what we want from life.”

“I love you more than anything,” he said softly. “Nothing matters beside that. I just want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

“Can you give me some time to think, please, Justin? And can we talk about it?”

“I would wait for you until the stars fall from the heavens, Nicola, with your love as the prize.”

When I spoke to my mum that evening, I needed to take my courage in both hands.

“I’m afraid I can’t come with you to the States next week.”

“But, darling, we’ve bought your tickets, the hotels are booked; everything’s booked.”

“I’m sorry, but I need to be here.”

“Is it that boy? I knew he was a bad influence on you!”

“Justin has asked me to marry him.”

“Don’t be silly! You’re much too young. You’re only nineteen!”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Oh. Good. You haven’t lost all your common sense then.”

“I also told him that I love him. And I do. You must see that I can’t just wave bye-bye and go to America for six weeks.”

“Six weeks really isn’t very long, darling.”

Six weeks is an eternity! It’s only eight hours since I kissed him goodbye at the station and I’m already miserable with loss.

“If it’s alright with you, I shall come home tomorrow and stay at home over the summer. I expect I’ll visit Justin, and I hope he’ll visit me. Would you mind that, Mum?”

Do come with us to the States. It won’t be nearly as much fun for me if you’re not there.”

“For goodness sake, Mum, don’t do this whole guilt-trip thing. You’ll have a great time without me.”

“But I shall be worrying about you the whole time.”

“Now you’re being silly. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum. Bye!”

There was no more talk of marriage over the long vac; I think we both realised that we needed to wait until we were back at uni. We visited each other’s homes, and I met Justin’s parents. I liked them. They were warm, friendly people, and I could see why Justin was so empathetic. And when we were apart, I made a point of talking to Justin on Skype every single day.

The best day of the vacation was the day the exam results came out. Justin was staying with me for a week, and we checked the results together. I had the first that I’d worked so hard for, and Justin, to his own astonishment, had an upper second. I treated us to a visit to the best local restaurant and a bottle of champagne.

As we went home by taxi afterwards, Justin was rather quiet and thoughtful.

We sat drinking coffee together, and he said, “Your parents are quite well off, aren’t they?”

“I suppose they are. I don’t really think about it. So what?”

“We’re…poor, I suppose, really. Mum and Dad have made sacrifices for me to attend Cambridge. I don’t know how much that matters to you?”

“Not. One. Tiny. Bit.” I kissed him, over and over again, until we both got the giggles.

So the long vacation passed pleasantly, and also productively because I read as much as I could about theoretical chemistry. The more I studied, the more I felt that this was my metier. This was the field in which I was going to make my mark. I was delighted to read a number of papers by a Fellow of Queens’ whom I knew supervised second year students.

Consequently, I was deeply disappointed when my Director of Studies told me that someone else was going to supervise me in chemistry. I asked, politely, whether here was any chance that this could be changed? Apparently not.

“Doctor Snell is a specialist in theoretical chemistry, Professor. I’ve been studying that over the long vac, and I’m really keen to follow the subject. I did pass with first class honours, Professor. I know that doesn’t entitle me to any privileges, but I really had hoped…”

“The supervisor to whom we have allocated you is a very able scholar. I’m sure he’ll be more than capable of supervising even someone as overwhelmingly talented as you are. Now, if there’s nothing else?”

I was furious. I was livid. I went straight round to Alison.

“Is he taking any more students this year? After all, there are all sorts of reasons why he might not be taking students. It sounds as though he’s a prolific researcher. Maybe he just doesn’t have time?”

True. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Why don’t you make a few discreet enquiries in the department?” suggested Alison. “Or if you’re feeling particularly brave, talk to the man himself. Who knows? You might be able to persuade him to take you on.”

It was good advice, but I’m not very brave about just walking up and talking to somebody I don’t know.

Justin was incensed on my behalf. “How dare he be sarcastic about your ability? You’re brilliant, Nikki, way better than a second-rater like him.” It was very agreeable to have such fervent support, but in all fairness I had to point out that my Director of Studies was a very distinguished scholar whose publications placed him firmly in the front rank of scientists in the UK.

“Anyway, I shall ask around and see what I can learn about the other students he’s supervising.”

It was only a few days later that he said, “I found out something very interesting about Dr Snell. He has no female students. As far as anybody can remember, he never has had. Apparently, one of his current students says that Snell has said that the female brain can’t cope with a high level of abstraction and that women should stick to organic chemistry, which is like cooking.”

Alison chipped in at this point, and we all had an emotionally satisfying rant about sexism and legal redress and the iniquity of the University authorities employing such a man – although even in the middle of our denunciations I made a mental reservation for Dr Snell; I mean, he was just so brilliant.

I suppose that thought was what spurred my imagination. If I approached the matter as sexism, I certainly wasn’t going to be supervised by Dr Snell. The only way of accomplishing that would be to convince him that I was capable. I’d read his papers very carefully, and it seemed to me that there were areas of weakness. You don’t win hearts and minds by exposing weakness, though, so I needed to find the points where the theory could be extended. Then I would have to do some intensive work to show more clearly how this could be achieved, and find an opportunity to talk to Dr Snell about it.

Alison looked doubtful. “You’re only a second year student. Do you think you can contribute original work in such a difficult field?”

“Nikki’s brilliant!” said Justin. Lovely man! I smiled at him.

“I may be good enough. I shall certainly try. But I don’t have to produce original work; I just need to be able to ask good questions that will show that I am capable of understanding the subject.”

Alison pulled a face. “I guess. But misogyny runs deep.”

But at the beginning of November, my Director of Studies informed me that Dr Snell had asked to supervise me. Joy and delight!

Occasionally during that second year Justin and I discussed marriage.

The first time he described a vision of a family, with several children, and with me as some sort of idealised figure, halfway between a fairy who could grant every wish and an earth-mother nourishing the world with the milk from her breasts and the cooking from her kitchen. That was one of the rare occasions on which we quarrelled…

He was a lot more realistic during our second discussion. He agreed that scholarship was my vocation, ahead of family commitments. He agreed that maybe children weren’t necessary for a happy and fulfilled marriage. I, in my turn, conceded that children weren’t necessarily out of the question provided we could make adequate childcare arrangements.

“All this discussion about the practicalities rather takes the romance out of it,” he grumbled.

“If I marry you, Justin, you’re stuck with me. We have to sort out whether we’ll be able to make it work. And, in any case, there is no way we’re going to marry before we’ve completed Finals.”

He looked at me with big, brown, soulful eyes. “I just love you so much,” he said.

At the end of the second year, I achieved another first; Justin had slipped to a lower second. He wasn’t particularly worried. When we talked about his plans, he said, “I thought I would apply to Addenbrooke’s Hospital to train as a physiotherapist. That will be handy for living near you when you’re doing your PhD. It’s something I rather fancy doing. I think I’ll be good at it; better than at the academic stuff, anyway!”

It was on November 28th that I had the first ‘blanking’ incident. It had been a particularly busy week. It was one o’clock in the morning, and I was looking at how modern numerical methods aligned with molecular orbital theory when I suddenly realised that I hadn’t understood anything on the page. I went back to the beginning and started again. I caught the fringe of meaning, but I couldn’t grasp the core.

“I must be exhausted,” I said to myself. There was dread in my heart as I went to bed. Not finishing that work meant I was starting the next day with a deficit.

I rose at five, made a coffee, and started working immediately. The relief! I understood the paper, and could criticise and develop its arguments. It was as though I had been drowning and then discovered, just in time, that I could swim. By the end of the day I was back on schedule.

Justin wanted to see me the following day. I was rather short with him. There was so much work to do. He kissed me and looked concerned.

“Are you eating properly?”

“Of course I am!” I tried a laugh, but it emerged more aggressively than I intended.

“Will you let me fetch us both a takeaway? You could work while we eat. I’ll just sit quietly; I won’t interrupt, I promise.”

I was hungry, I realised. I’d started without breakfast, and it was now – seven o’clock in the evening? Surely not!

The Chinese meal that Justin brought was delicious, and I felt much better afterwards.

“Here, have a glass of wine,” he suggested.

I hesitated. I was only just in line with my schedule. Could I afford to slow myself down with alcohol? Justin’s face gradually changed, from encouraging to worried. He lowered the glass.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Nikki love?”

“Just because I’m not having a glass of wine? Really, Justin!” I took the glass from his hand, and downed it in one. “All okay!”

Four days later I passed out in the gatehouse. I wasn’t aware of it. As far as I was concerned I’d woken up to find myself in a hospital bed with a drip in my arm and with no memory of how I’d arrived there.

“Nurse! Nurse!” I yelled.

“It’s all right, Nikki. There’s nothing seriously wrong.” Justin was beside me. Thank goodness!

I buried my face in his sleeve and sobbed. “I’m frightened, Justin!”

“I’ve got you, Nikki. Everything’s going to be fine. The doctor says you’ve just been overdoing things. You need rest.”

“But I must study or I’ll fail my Finals!” I struggled to be free of his embrace, and to tear the cannula from my arm.

“You leave that cannula exactly where it is, Miss Hammond. If it’s going to come out – which it isn’t – I shall be the one to remove it.” The nurse was severe. “You’re dehydrated and malnourished. The drip will rehydrate you and give you glucose for energy, and we’ll gradually re-introduce you to proper food. Starting with some soup in five minutes.”

“Am I going to die?”

“Die? Good heavens, no! You’ll be back on your feet in a few days. The nutritionist will see you tomorrow, and give you some advice about proper eating habits.”

“Are you sure I’m going to be okay? I feel so strange.”

“I’m quite sure. Now, here’s Staff Nurse Joy with your soup. I want you to eat it all up, please!”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Not a problem. You eat it anyway.”

I looked at the bowl. Fawn soup, indiscriminate texture. It didn’t tempt me. I looked at Justin. I looked again at the soup. I looked back at Justin, and the corners of his mouth twitched.

“I know how you feel,” he said. “But eat it anyway.”

I took a spoonful. It was savoury, and better than it looked. My tongue remembered that food could sometimes be pleasant. I took another spoonful. When it was finished, I asked if I could have some more.

“Let it digest for an hour or so; your body must become used to food again. You can have another portion at eight o’clock.”

“I’m not sure whether you’ll think this is good news,” said Justin, “but your Mum’s on her way here. She said she’d be with us by about nine o’clock.”

“I must be properly ill then?” I said, doubtfully.

“I’m afraid so. You frightened the life out of poor Alison who was with you when you keeled over.”

“Justin, are they telling me the truth? I am going to recover, aren’t I?”

“Yes, of course you are, love. You shut your eyes, and I’ll hold your hand until your next bowlful of soup comes.”

“I just feel frightened. Hold me tight.”

Justin hugged me, and then gently helped me to be comfortable on my pillow. Soon I dozed.

I won’t go into details of my recovery. There were physicians and nutritionists and physiotherapists and psychiatrists. I was astonished at how weak I had become, and how timid. Justin was a rock. Night and day for the first three days he sat in that chair next to me, comforting me, encouraging me, helping me to understand what was happening to me. I don’t know how I would have coped without him.

My mother helped too. She used her contacts to discover the best psychiatrist for treating anxiety neurosis, and then paid for my treatment by him.

By March I was back at college, but with a strictly limited workload. I stuck to it rigidly. The alternative was a breakdown, I had been told.

I found the exams easy, although I chafed at every question. I knew how much better my answers could have been if I’d been capable of working harder. I also knew enough not to beat myself up over it. To my astonishment I was awarded a starred first. Dr Snell was quick to offer his congratulations. Even better, he offered me a place on his team to work for my PhD.

The real delight, though, is Justin. He achieved a lower second, and has already started training as a physiotherapist.

We’re going to be married in October! I’ve insisted to Mum that it will be a small wedding – but it will be a good one!